Massachusetts builds a granite `fortress' for its historic treasures

NOT all good things come in small packages. That familiar saying certainly applies to the historic treasures of Massachusetts. Dozens of precious documents, including the ornate 1628 Massachusetts Bay Company charter from England's King Charles I, will soon leave their cramped quarters at the State House for a new, larger home.

With the $19.1 million fortress-like state archives building at Columbia Point near completion, plans for the big move are taking shape. But for reasons of security state officials hope to begin the relocation as inconspicuously as possible.

The first occupant and focal point of the gray granite-faced structure will be the archival museum. But most of the three-level, 129,000-square-foot building will house the Massachusetts archives and the state records center.

The latter, 1,300 tons of state-agency files, will have lots of room to grow. Some of the more historically valuable material surely will be turned over to the now 12 million-document state archives for preservation and permanent safekeeping.

But is the Dorchester Bay site, some three miles from the State House and the Boston Freedom Trail, too remote to attract more than a trickle of visitors?

Much could depend on its future neighbors. The nearby Columbia Point housing project, a once crime-riddled complex, is slated to be revitalized into a mixed-income residential community. But that could take years. The archives building is located between the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library. Were the latter not there, it is questionable whether state officials would have embarked on the archives project.

In the mid-1970s, when the decision was made to build a much-needed climate-controlled structure for the commonwealth's historic valuables, trustees of the privately supported library honoring the late President were eager to see that their building had compatible neighbors.

Now that the archives building is near to opening, it is up to Secretary of State Michael J. Connolly, some of whose agencies will be housed there, to make the most of that substantial investment.

Certainly thought, time, and effort have gone into making the 5,000-square-foot museum an ongoing attraction not only for tourists but also for Bay Staters.

The exhibits area will be entered through a time-line, tracing the commonwealth's more than 31/2-century history.

Besides various permanent displays, the museum will feature displays keyed to the theme of ``people, places, and politics of Massachusetts.''

The first of these will tell the story of Shays Rebellion, a 1786-87 insurrection of farmers and others mostly from the central and western parts of the state. The revolt was sparked by complaints of high taxes and declining farm prices. Two hundred years later, these are issues to which many Bay Staters can certainly relate.

Later, Massachusetts' Indians and their contributions will be saluted. Another possible exhibit would mark the 200th anniversary of the United States Constitution in 1987. Massachusetts constitution, adopted two years earlier, in 1785, would play an important part. This document, the oldest of its kind in the nation, has rarely been on display.

Deputy Secretary of State James Igoe, who is overseeing the move and the building's operations, is enthusiastic. He envisions the exhibit area becoming a Massachusetts historical museum, embracing memorabilia from all corners of the commonwealth rather than perhaps little more than a collection of priceless documents concerning government.

To achieve such goals, a lot of support, including possibly millions of dollars from various endowments and from the state treasury as well, may be needed. But the initiative, if not also the leadership, must come from Beacon Hill.

Lawmakers and members of the Bay State's executive branch owe it to their state to make sure its priceless historic documents are not abandoned to a ca remote, sparsely visited, underfunded museum. Who needs another white elephant, or even a gray-granite one?

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